Frankly… I’m worried. Some have taken these blogs and attacked them (one preacher at a small church in Florida recently printed excerpts and called them “a Common Lie”) but that is not unusual or troubling. What troubles me are those who see that the Bible has some human words — in other words, God did not use the writers as stenographers — and then allow their faith to spiral out of control. This is especially odd to me because these studies increased my faith in Jesus as the Son of God and in God as a good and righteous God. And I treasure the Bible, even the bits that strike me as horrific or the parts I know were heavily edited (not that many, by the way) by later writers such as Ezra. I have tried to help those whose faith was in the perfection of the Bible rather than the perfection of Jesus with a few blogs here but that doesn’t seem to help them. I would rather pull this blog down permanently than allow that to continue but, before I take that step, let me try again.
One sweet soul wrote me and said “All I get now is ‘Jesus existed.’” Whoa. Seriously? Just because the Canaanite genocide cannot, I believe, be laid at the feet of God and because the Bible has some internal disagreements about God, how much David paid for a place to worship, or the number of people who went here or there we have to trash the book and our story and our faith? That is such an incredible leap that I have a hard time following it. It seems to go like this:
1. The Bible is how I know about God and Jesus.
2. The Bible is not completely and utterly inerrant about everything.
3. Therefore, I can’t trust anything it has to say about God or Jesus.
Let me ask you some questions to help you see why the above set of propositions and conclusions is not accurate or reasonable.
1. The Bible is not our only source of knowledge about God and Jesus. We also have a huge amount of historical records that back up the story of Jesus complete with incredible miracles and his resurrection. Read Lee Strobel’s “The Case For Christ” and “The Case For the Resurrection” for starters. Lee was an investigative reporter for a major Midwest paper who found that history backs up our story and faith. His books are very readable and accurate. If you want some serious meat on the table, read NT Wright’s “The Resurrection of the Son of God” or his slightly more accessible “How God Became King.” Wright has written a great deal about the human touches in our Bible and it certainly hasn’t hurt his faith any! He is one of the most respected scholars I know and I use him as a go-to guy when I have questions.
We also know about God through nature. He said we could see Him there and we can. That is why CS Lewis, when speaking of God via the Aslan character in his series “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” said “He is good, but he is not safe.” That’s one of my favorite quotes, by the way. As a scientist, I see God in nature everywhere I look. And I know that a God who made all of these things wants to include us in His story. I see His story (and our story, my story) in nature and in our book as well as in the church — the community of God. The Bible was collected by believers over centuries. The books they chose were meaningful to them and to us for they tell our story — even the bits we got wrong are our story. But here is the thing most of us assume and never get around to thinking about: when the canon was closed, was it closed by God or man? I was taught that the Holy Spirit gathered the books, everyone agreed on them, and then He quit inspiring us outside of those books. NONE of that is from God or taught via the books we gathered. That was just a huge assumption we made. So what am I saying? I am saying that nature is one of our books, the Bible is a collection of our books, and our church community is another part of our story — another book, as it were. The canon was not closed; God is still at work. While I do not look for a special missive from God via an apostle now living, I see God’s wisdom in Strobel, Wright, Josh Graves, Chris Seidman, and a thousand others. I see it when I listen to elders gather to pray for their flock. I see a message from God in the work of Mother Teresa, in the hymns we sing, in the diverse gathering I see sharing faith and love via the Lord’s Supper every Sunday… and on and on. The Bible is part of our story but it is not the whole story. Jesus is the reason for our story from creation to now to what is yet to be revealed. Evidence? We are surrounded by it, immersed by it, and part of it.
Jesus told us this. He told us that where two or three of us were gathered in His Name, he would be right in the middle of our gathering. He didn’t qualify this by saying we had to believe this or that; he just promised his presence. He told his followers that if they agreed about something among themselves, he would agree with us in heaven. So the canon is continued in our lives, worship, discussions, and work. If something in my life hits a discordant note with the rest of scripture or with the example of Jesus or with the community of faith in which I serve, then I can assume that God is letting me know I am out of line. I need to sing His song in His community while I am about His work and telling His story.
2. The Bible was written by humans. Sometimes they didn’t record everything right but the fact is that MOST of the Bible — the vast majority — seems to be not only accurate but authoritative. When we hit a discordant note, we go to the life of Jesus to see if his example can show us how to view this or that story. When we hear different versions of how many times the cock crowed before Peter cursed and denied Jesus, we don’t get tied up in the minutiae but remember that the story has a point. We learn the point of the story and move on. Think of the Aurora shooter (I refuse to give his name any publicity). Witnesses differ on every single aspect of the timeline, who was shot when, how he moved or looked, and on and on. And yet, they all agree that a bad guy entered the theater and shot innocent people and that was a horrible evil. THAT is the point. If we find that two witnesses differ on who was shot when, do we disbelieve the event ever occurred at all? Of course not. And when Bible witnesses differ on what God wanted or said, we look to Jesus, we examine the whole of scripture to see if the contradiction is real or imagined, and we make a determination about the point the writer was trying to make. We don’t discard the whole story and we certainly don’t discard the entire collection of books!
3. See #1 and 2 above.
I’ll prayerfully consider whether I am making my point adequately or if I am hurting the faith of those who read. If I am not doing my job well, I will be compelled to pull this site down.
For now, I am printing in full an article/blog by one of my heroes, Leroy Garrett. It speaks to the point of the formation of the canon and how we formed our church. He does not go further in this article to discuss the fact that the canon of scripture continues IN the church but I think you see that implied. You can read all of his work for free at www.leroygarrett.org. He is worth reading.
DID THE NEW TESTAMENT PRODUCE THE CHURCH?
In my youth I sat at the feet of N. B. Hardman at Freed-Hardeman College and other of our noted scholars at Abilene Christian College, including Homer Hailey. I was uniquely blessed to be educated by the best that Churches of Christ had. Now into my 90s I remain thankful for that experience, and I love and appreciate those men for who they were and what they stood for. But as I look back over more than a half-century of history of Churches of Christ I realize that those dear men and we their students, along with Churches of Christ in general, have bought into a colossal fallacy.
It might be called the Restored Church fallacy, which assumes that the true church ceased to exist for 1800 years, and that our pioneers in the Restoration Movement came along and restored the authentic, apostolic church. This they did by identifying the true church — in name, doctrine, and practice? — in the New Testament, which they made a pattern or blueprint. We came to call this New Testament Christianity, a term we may have coined ourselves, for it is not likely to be found outside our own circles. But we do share the term Restoration Movement with others, including the Mormons, with whom we also share the only true church fallacy. But we and the Mormons, along with all restorationists, see a different true church in the blueprint, and thus a multiplicity of sects. And we have compounded this fallacy by presuming that this is our heritage in Stone-Campbell. Over the years I have endeavored to show that Stone-Campbell sought to reform the church that has always existed by a restoration of the ancient order?– a New Reformation Campbell called it — which is a far cry from the restored church assumption.
This myth presumes that the New Testament produced the church, and that this is our mission — to get the right take on the New Testament and build the church according to that pattern. But the primitive churches — Jerusalem, Antioch, Thessalonica, Corinth — did not have the New Testament. There were many in those churches who lived and died having never seen what we call the New Testament. If you had asked them about New Testament Christianity? they would not have known what you were talking about.
This can only mean that it was the church that produced the New Testament, and not the New Testament the church. Even then the emergence of what we know as the New Testament was gradual, incidental, and even unintentional. The apostles never said, “We must get with it and write a Bible.” The earliest documents, Paul’s two letters to the Thessalonians, would never have been written had there not been problems in that church that needed his attention. So with the Corinthian correspondence. And Luke did not see himself writing Luke-Acts as part of a book, but to one man to whom he wanted to tell the Story aright. While all the documents that make up the New Testament were written within the first century they only gradually came to be recognized as Scripture and canonized. It was well into the fourth century before the New Testament as we know it, all 27 books, were listed as canonized Scripture.
This makes it a problem to refer to the New Testament as our authority, for it was not the authority of the primitive churches. Jesus Christ was their authority. Our Lord himself points to the rule that makes Scripture authoritative; “You search the Scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life, and these are they which testify of me.” (John 5:39). Jesus Christ is the head and the authority of the church, and only in him is eternal life. Redemption is in a Person, not in a book, and multitudes were saved, lived and died in the faith, long before there was a book. This means that Scripture — whether the Old or New Testaments – is authoritative as it testifies of Christ, as it glorifies him, and reveals information about him. Scripture might be seen as a telescope through which one sees Christ, both in prophecy and fulfillment.
Scripture also has broader application and more evident authority when it speaks of superlative facts, such as the wondrous works of God, and when it refers to universal principles and things permanent rather than things local and temporary. All truths are equally true, but all truths are not equally important. That Jesus was born in Bethlehem is as true as that he was the Christ, but not as important. It is the vital truths — the fundamentals — that speak with authority.
These are the things the earliest believers would have known by way of their Scriptures (Old Testament), the apostles doctrine (Acts 2:42), and oral tradition long before there was a New Testament. Greet one another with a holy kiss is enjoined four times by Paul, and it may have been authoritative in his churches, but it was not written to us and is not catholic in nature. So with Jesus instructing his disciples to wash each other’s feet — both a command and an example — but it was still circumstantial and not universal. In our time we might kiss? and wash feet in ways more meaningful to our way of life.
It is informing to realize that the New Testament was not written to us, nor is it about us. It is for us — or speaks to us as the word of God — only as it speaks universally. I like the way the late Professor Henry J. Cadbury of Harvard put it: ?”It is not that we are to do precisely as they did, but we are to do for our generation what they did for theirs.”?
Some of the experiences of the Jerusalem community of faith will further illustrate what I am saying. Luke tells us in Acts 2 and 4 that the church had a communal system of sharing, that they owned all things in common, even to selling what they owned, placing the proceeds at the apostles’ feet, and sharing equally. But this is not about us. Luke was an historian. He’s telling the reader what the Jerusalem church did. It is by no means a mandate for all churches to come. It is not universal.
But when Luke tells about Pentecost in Acts 2 he speaks in universal, even cosmic, terms. Jesus is preached as the risen Lord, whom the Pentecostians had crucified. They are told to repent and be baptized for the remission of their sins and receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. There is nothing local or circumstantial here. It rings with catholicity.
Equally impressive is the account of the Jerusalem council in Acts 15. A weighty problem faced the church with the coming in of the Gentiles. Do they have to become Jews by being circumcised in order to be Christians? There was considerable disputation, but the apostles, elders, and even the Holy Spirit at last reached a decision. They wrote a letter to the Gentile congregations, requiring of them only these necessary things, and circumcision was not one of them, but to eat only kosher meat was!
Even though this letter was written by apostles, elders, and even the Holy Spirit, and listed necessary things — and is in the New Testament — it was not written to us and is not about us. It was vital to the peace of the primitive church, but clearly circumstantial and temporary.
But in Act 10:34-35 the apostle Peter, troubled by the same Gentile problem, after witnessing the Holy Spirit coming upon Gentile believers, was led to say what he thought he would never say, “In truth I perceive that God shows no partiality, but in every nation whoever fears Him and works righteousness is accepted by Him.”? This exciting, mind-boggling affirmation is not only wonderfully catholic, but it is cosmic in that unlike the letter in Act 15 it reaches out to all mankind, every person, and all religions requiring the one necessary thing: reverence for God and doing what is right.
While it is not part of my thesis in this essay, we may also conclude that this is the answer to our divisions and the only way to Christian unity;
In things universal and permanent, unity;
In things temporal and transient, liberty;
In all things, love.